By Joseph Batory
Way back in June of 1960, I finished high school. I now saw three future choices: One was to attend Philadelphia’s La Salle College (not then a university), which had accepted me for admission as a member of its class of 1964 (beginning in September of 1960); My second option was to get some badly-needed money working alongside my father in the huge General Electric Switchgear plant located right in the middle of my Southwest Philly neighborhood; And then, there was my top choice: numbers running (that is, working for illegal neighborhood gambling) under the direction of Guido, the neighborhood bookie in my very Italian neighborhood.
However, my dream was soon derailed. Sometime in the summer after graduation from high school, Guido authoritatively reduced my options by demanding that I go to college: “For heaven’s sake Joey, you’re one of the first guys around here who was ever able to get admitted to a prestigious college like LaSalle, so why would you throw away that opportunity?” Guido argued. “Besides, you’ll be a representative from us people from the real world! You didn’t have no silver spoons growing up so you could be a role model for others like us. You could inspire more kids from this neighborhood to reach upward. And what a difference you could make as a teacher or a principal for kids who grew up like you did. So, forget about working for “the family.” It ain’t going to happen! You are going to give this academic stuff your best shot.”
Nothing like a “guidance counselor lecture” from a rackets’ boss. Guido said that maybe I was just plain scared of trying to compete in higher education. He was probably right.
But Guido kept hammering me about equality, saying that people from our neighborhood deserve the opportunity to attend college just like anyone else. “Joey, you can and will compete.” Guido had my future education plan all “greased and ready to roll.” He stopped by my house on a steamy July night and I filled out my acceptance confirmation agreement from La Salle in front of my mom and dad. I mailed the packet to LaSalle. The three adults were jubilant. I was depressed and felt like I was trapped on a tree limb.
I was basically in shock. I paid my first semester tuition at La Salle, an awesome amount for someone from my social class ($300.00), and picked up my full roster of courses. My first days of college were scary. The good news was that I was able to navigate my way to each of the five scheduled classes on my roster. The professors were friendly, classes were small, and teaching involved “give and take” between students and profs. And I was struck by the manners of collegiate classmates. People said hello and nodded to you like you were person. When you entered a building or classroom, the student before you held the door until you got there instead of at letting it slam in your face. This was a whole new world to me.
The bad news had to do with textbooks. In my Catholic elementary school, books on different subjects were given to students free of charge and then returned to school authorities at the year’s end. West Catholic High School followed much the same ritual with only a token book fee charge at the beginning of the school year. BUT…to my amazement, college was a different ball game. You had to buy your own books!!! Say what? How was I supposed to know this or deal with it?
I had carefully budgeted the precise amount of money for the first year of the La Salle tuition. Student loans would get me through the next three years. But there was no money left to buy books. My professors had mandated eight different textbooks. Eventually I searched out the LaSalle bookstore and observed long lines of students buying textbooks. I was doomed. I priced my required textbooks. The cost was somewhere around $100, an awesome amount for someone who worried about thirty cents of his public transit money for the subway each day.
To this day I believe that LaSalle should award me some sort of honorary degree for my first year of academic achievement. I finished with a 2.6 academic index out of a possible 4.0. What was so remarkable about this accomplishment is that I did not purchase one new book during my first two semesters of college. True, I was able to acquire a couple of the mandated books from upperclassmen who no longer had any use for them and sold them to me for giveaway prices.
However, most of the time, I borrowed precious textbooks when classmate friends ate lunch in the cafeteria or sat around the campus at leisure. I begged for a few minutes with their books and read as rapid fire as I could. In summary, I went through my freshman year at LaSalle without most of the required books ever being in my possession. To this day I get chills when I think about it.
In my subsequent years at La Salle, part-time summer jobs and donations from Guido solved my textbook problems, but the first year at LaSalle had been an academic nightmare I would never wish on anyone.
College was another planet for me. I was in alien visitor whose lack of money and lower-class social background were major detriments. I was constantly swimming against the currents.
Through it all Guido was always there for me. On the congested streets of my Southwest Philly neighborhood, he and I talked hundreds of times during my four-year college adventure. Guido helped to pick me up when I was down and always offered positive reinforcement.
Finally, after more than a year of being lost in the meaningless academic pathways of college subjects, I finally found some refuge in a superbly taught English novel course. So many of the works we read featured social class discrimination, hatred, revenge, betrayal, power struggles, violence, and deception. It was sort of like growing up in my neighborhood. I had found relevance at last I became a real student for the first time in my life as a La Salle College English major!
To La Salle’s credit, it was the only institution of higher learning that dared to admit me into academia, something several other Philadelphia area colleges refused to do. Furthermore, many La Salle profs encouraged and nurtured me during my four years. Indeed, my eventual degree is a miracle the Vatican should perhaps investigate.
And then of course there was the irrepressible Guido. In simplest terms without my booky advisor, college for me probably would never have happened. Mentoring matters monumentally, especially for those young people who need support the most. The empathy, motivation, and encouragement from Guido helped to change the course of my life.
Joseph Batory moved on from his early life of poverty and despair to become the nationally recognized and award-winning superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District from 1984 to 1999. He is the author of three books and more than 100 published opinion/editorial articles.
The segment above is adapted from the third book of Batory’s trilogy (Joey Lets It All Hang Out!), published by Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD and Oxford, UK, 2003.